2020 was not a year to remember for the Maltese accommodation and food services sector. The COVID restrictions and their impact on both local and foreign customers was very substantial. As a result it is not surprising that Jobsplus data show that the number of full-time workers in this sector fell from 15,894 to 14,608, while part-time jobs fell from 7,744 to 7,175.
But there is a surprise hidden behind these headline figures. In Gozo the number of full-time workers in accommodation and food services did not fall. It actually rose by 1% from 1,218 in 2019 to 1,227 in 2020. The number of part-timers increased from 693 to 716, or by 3%.
For all those who had forecast mass unemployment in Gozo at the start of the pandemic because of its over-reliance on tourism, the increase in employment in accommodation and food services came as a surprise. Well that is hardly the most striking figure. Much more striking is that in mid-2021 instead of being saddled with an army of unemployed, we are witnessing the lowest number of Gozitans on the unemployment register in history.
Figures issued by the National Statistics Office confirm that Gozo witnessed the same very substantial drop in foreign tourism that Malta faced in 2020. The only saving grace for Gozo in this area was that tourists who visited Gozo took much longer holidays than usual. In fact, while in 2019, on average, foreign tourists spent 9 days in Gozo, they stayed for 13 days in 2020. In contrast foreign tourists who came to Malta on average had a holiday of less than 8 days, only slightly longer than in 2019.
We are witnessing the lowest number of Gozitans on the unemployment register in history.
However, while the drop in foreign tourism was accompanied by a drop of Gozitans staying at Maltese hotels in 2020, a surge in Maltese taking holidays in Gozo offset almost two-thirds of the losses in nights stayed by foreign tourists. Despite the restrictions on movement between the two islands due to the pandemic, staycations reached record amounts in 2020. In fact, there were around 360,460 persons who took one. This is equivalent to 70% of our population, or one and a half times the proportion observed a year earlier.
NSO statistics indicate that among those over 65 the number of people who opted for a local holiday decreased by nearly a tenth. Among those aged between 45 and 64, however there was an increase of 40%, rising to 49% when looking at those under 25. But it was among those aged between 25 and 44 that staycations’ popularity exploded. Within this age bracket there was growth of 78%. In fact, among this section of the population it appears that on average they all took a holiday locally more than once a year. By contrast, among those aged over 65, only a quarter took a holiday locally, less than had been observed before the pandemic struck.
The average staycation lasted around three days in 2020, up from two days a year earlier. Local holidaymakers chose to spend their holiday mostly in rented apartments, villas, and farmhouses, with an increase of almost two thirds on 2019 numbers. There was also a sharp increase in Maltese who had a holiday in their own Gozitan property or that of their friends, with the amount doubling compared to the previous year. Although the number of Maltese staying in hotels in Gozo remained relatively stable, there was an increase in the amount of nights spent in these hotels with a growth of 14%.
In total, Maltese residents spent more than 1 million nights in Gozo, an increase of almost half a million over 2019, marking a stupendous 82% growth. As a result, there was spending on Gozo of almost €58 million, or €22 million more than in the year before the pandemic struck. On average each Maltese tourist spent €165, which means that a visiting family of four spent, on average, €660 during their three days in Gozo. Only a third of this spending was on accommodation. The rest was on food, beverages, and other expenses. This shows that the economic impact of this spending was widespread in Gozo, and not limited strictly to operators in tourism. A key element behind this spending was the voucher scheme which has proven a lifeline for the Gozitan economy.
It is well and good to discuss 2020, but how is 2021 looking for Gozo?
Well, the data released up to now suggest things are faring much better than 2020. In fact, the number of vehicles that crossed between Malta and Gozo in the first six months of 2021 was 17% more than the amount experienced in 2020. Similarly, between Gozo Channel services and the fast ferry there was a 2.5% increase in passengers crossing to Gozo. With the new voucher scheme starting to kick in, the prospects for the tourist season in Gozo look bright.